The Naked Tree, a graphic novel by the acclaimed cartoonist Keum Suk Gendry-Kim and translated by Jane Hong, was released in August.

Adapted from the debut novel of one of the most beloved South Korean novelist, Park Wan-Suh, The Naked Tree skillfully renders a city marred by war and encapsulates the challenges faced by individuals as they strive for survival and purpose in postwar Seoul, a period that coincided with Park Wan-Suh’s formative years.

With vivid visuals and bold brushstrokes, Gendry-Kim unflinchingly illustrates the war’s aftermath, yet each character is treated with a delicate touch, unveiling the multilayered emotions woven into their daily strife.

The novel comprises nine episodes with a prologue and an epilogue added by Gendry-Kim. The prologue begins by introducing Park Wan-Suh in the scene as the storyteller, reminiscing about her youth upon catching a newspaper article on the major retrospective of ‘late’ Park Soo-Kuen, an artist she met during the war who remained in poverty throughout his entire life. This prompts the author to write a story of the late artist, gesturing to the main motif of the story and the birth of a novel, The Naked Tree.

The narrative begins against the backdrop of war, setting the scene of Seoul 1951. South Korea was devastated by the Korean War and preceding Japanese colonization. 1951 was notable for the retreat of the United Nations Forces, and as depicted through the characters, the city was haunted by the echoes of war following their departure — sirens and distant bombings resonated through the streets and neighborhoods, still prevailing over daily lives of everyone.

During this period, Seoul was occupied by the North Koreans who fled their hometowns and South Koreans who remained in the city, and the American army bases that engaged in battles scattered across various cities.

Kyeonga, the main protagonist in the novel, is a young and precocious girl who became a sole breadwinner after losing her father and two brothers and makes a living by selling portraits at the U.S. military Post Exchange (PX), where goods are sold to the U.S. army soldiers. In between her work at PX and drifting through the city in search of herself, she meets the painter Ok Huido, a character based on Park Soo-Kuen. Their meeting that will profoundly change her long after these bleak hours of their lives.

Ok Huido stands out to Kyeonga from the rest of the portrait painters at the PX. Despite being as poor as the others, Huido has a ‘presence’ about him: unwavering and composed, and persistent. Huido’s simple defense against sneers, introducing himself as ‘I’m just a painter,’ piques curiosity in Kyeonga. Unlike anyone around her, the harsh realities of war and poverty seemed to have left him unbroken. Huido’s fortitude and warmth, and struggles to keep his dignity in the face of harsh reality, deeply move Kyeonga, leading her to develop feelings for him.

As foreshadowed in the prologue, the two individuals who met during the harshest phases of the nation’s  modern  history, would go on to become larger-than-life figures in Korean modern literature and art. The author Park Wan-Suh and the painter Park Soo-Kuen, one of the most beloved artists by Koreans.

Gendry-Kim also dedicates a significant portion to depicting the everyday lives during wartime, encompassing elements of survival, boredom, moments of joy, and love, all endured amidst the backdrop of fear and anxiety.

The illustrative cast of characters includes the 20-year-old Kyeonga. Her aged mother, burdened by the sorrow of losing her two sons, remains unable to perceive her daughter’s pain or express her love for her. The once promising painter Ok Huido, seeking refuge after fleeing his hometown in the North, starts working at the PX as a “hired” artist to make ends meet. Taesu, a wounded veteran and an amateur electrician who falls in love with Kyeonga. The self-interested CEO Choi takes pride in portraying himself as a benevolent philanthropist who “saves” starving artists, although his benevolence often proves fleeting.

Furthermore, there are transient, yet lively characters around Kyeonga’s life such as the girls who work at PX, who rely on the U.S. military presence for their living and who are deeply immersed in the new Western culture. Distinguished by their modern looks, makeup, and open dating with American GIs, these “modern girl” characters capture a corner of the evolving social landscape of the city under the weight of Westernization.

These vibrant, and heart wrenching stories of characters are well weaved into the narrative, making the novel effective and compelling. Gendry-Kim’s love for each character is palpable, as she notes in the epilogue: “Each one called to me. With the war, the lives of these ordinary people changed overnight. They lost family, friends, and cherished possessions, but those who managed to survive had no choice but to carry on. I wrestled with how I should express the sentiment of those left behind.”

The Naked Tree takes a motif from the painter Park Su Geun’s masterpiece, “Tree and Two Women (1962).” The Naked Tree as a title symbolizes a dormant tree in winter, bare and seemingly lifeless, yet waiting to bloom with new leaves and flowers come spring — a theme that consistently manifests in his works. This serves as a metaphor in the novel for generations withstood one of the coldest eras of history as they await the arrival of spring. The everyday people, mostly women and children, are consistently present in the artist’s works. 

The epilogue chapter of the novel is added through the imagination of Gendry-Kim, which tells the fate of a portrait of Diana, a woman who worked at PX,  drawn by Ok Huido, and discovered 70 years later in a barn in rural areas of Seattle, Washington. As Gendry Kim expresses, the closing chapter pays tribute to the legacies of an artist left somewhere unbeknownst to us, igniting new inspiration in different corners of the world.

As Gendry Kim highlights, the graphic novel The Naked Tree can be seen as an homage to an artist navigating turbulent times, “a tale of unrequited love,” or a portrayal of youth during wartime in Kyeonga’s coming-of-age journey, or a shift between generations of mother and daughter.

With its rich layers, rawness, and engaging narrative, The Naked Tree invites diverse interpretations shaped by each reader’s perspective. Gendry-Kim concludes in the epilogue, noting: “Every reader contributes their unique emotions and thoughts to the narrative. My hope is that all will reflect on the themes of war and peace. Despite the difficulty of confronting the pain endured by war survivors, I am honored to have the opportunity to reinterpret this masterpiece.”

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